TALLAHASSEE — The state may cut its money and ties to Egmont Key, the tiny island in the mouth of Tampa Bay that serves as a state park and national wildlife refuge.
A House subcommittee on Thursday proposed returning Egmont Key and two other properties to their federal owners as a way to close this year's $3.7 billion budget shortfall. In a unique arrangement, Egmont Key is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Coast Guard and has been part of the state parks system since 1989.
Losing state money would have "devastating consequences for the management of the island," said Michael Lusk, manager of five national wildlife refuges, including Egmont Key, on Florida's west coast.
Without state money, Lusk fears the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will close the island to the public during the week.
The state pays a full-time employee to live on the island. On the weekends, a few park rangers patrol its 300 acres, which attract a couple of thousand visitors on busy days.
Two federally paid law enforcement officers work in Lusk's region of national refuges but devote most of their time to Crystal River, a haven for manatees, and Chassahowitzka, marshland along the North Suncoast.
"We don't have anyone we could put down there full-time on the island," Lusk said. "All of those things would go away."
The island became part of the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1974. Visitors come by personal boat or ferry for Egmont's beaches and relics of Florida history, including an 87-foot lighthouse built in 1858 and a fort constructed in anticipation of the Spanish-American War.
Thousands of breeding birds — including black skimmers, American oyster catchers, pelicans, terns and seagulls — inhabit the island. Several birds rescued from Louisiana and Mississippi were rehabilitated and released at Egmont Key following last year's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
Returning the parks to their federal owners would save $351,000, according to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, issued the budget proposal as chairwoman of that committee. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Egmont Key received nearly $77,000 in the 2009-10 budget year, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection figures.
The island has been a frequent target of the governor's budget proposal over the years, but this time, it's the House wielding the budget ax.
"That's what has people concerned," Lusk said.
Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, who represents Pinellas beaches, said the state's bare-bones budget may require some painful cuts. Still, he said, walking away from maintenance responsibilities for insignificant savings seems shortsighted.
"I've gone there since 1950 when we first came to Florida," he said. "Certainly I believe it needs to be protected. And if the state can't afford to do it right now, I hope the federal government can continue to do it, at least until we come out of this recession. …
"Egmont Key is just a jewel."